When Good isn’t Good Enough

GoodIsn'tGoodEnoughTwo weeks ago our lives came to a screeching halt. Our sixteen-month-old son woke up screaming. My wife and I rushed into his room, not sure what was happening. As I reached down to pick him up, I knew that something was terribly wrong. Even after he’s been asleep for a few hours he’s always ready to party when Mom and Dad come into the room. This time, he was limp and disoriented. When I scooped him out of his bed I saw the problem: he had a fever. But I couldn’t have known the thermometer would say 107.6.

After a few blurry moments of panic and fear, we agreed that my wife would rush him to the emergency room while I stayed home with our daughter. It was quite possibly the longest night either of us have ever had.

In the end, we were able to get the fever down to a more manageable 102. And my son returned home by dawn.

However, it started us down a path of doctors, blood tests, and conversations with specialists, all focused on trying to determine what was wrong. Ultimately this led to surgery a few days later.

Who is your weakest link?

Why do I share all of this? Because I was reminded, in a very personal way, that organizations are only as good as their weakest link. My wife and I are lucky we live in a city where we could take our son to a world-class hospital. Not everyone has that luxury. But even in a world-class organization, you can see a difference in performance between individuals.

We saw it in our nurses.

Immediately following surgery we had outstanding nurses. They took care of our son, managed his pain, and took care of us. They made sure we were fed and moved us to a place Eli could recover in peace, at least until we could get a room. They helped ease the stress by being focused on the problem and by being willing to build relationships with us. After he had recovered a little we were moved to an overnight room. There we met other really amazing nurses. They played with Eli, took his temperature, and made sure we had everything we needed (even a nice jolt of caffeine, which was fantastic!). It wasn’t until the night shift where we encountered our first problem.

We ran into a good nurse.

When Good isn’t Good enough

Our nurse for the evening wasn’t a bad nurse. As I said, she was a good nurse. She did everything she was supposed to. But she lacked some of the qualities of the outstanding nurses. (She wasn’t very personable, she wasn’t as concerned about Eli’s pain, and she was hyper-focused on the rules of the floor.)

In a normal hospital this might not be a problem. In a normal hospital this nurse might have been outstanding. But we weren’t at a normal hospital. We were at a world-class institution. Which means the rules, fairly or unfairly, are different.

A place like Children’s Hospital can’t afford to have good nurses, or even great nurses.  They must all be outstanding nurses. Why?  Because we judge by the lowest common denominator (especially in times of stress and fear) and one good nurse is enough to ruin it for all the outstanding nurses.

That’s the cold reality for a lot of organizations. Your ten great sales people can be overshadowed by one average sales person. Your great restaurant could be undone by one pretty good server.

Bad employees aren’t the threat to organizations chasing excellence; it’s the mediocre employees that are the real problem.

So when you look around your organization, what do you see? What are you?

For some, I suspect, that answer will be a bit surprising.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

About Eric Barrett

Eric Barrett is an organizational psychologist who specializes in connecting the dots of work, life, and meaning. He has worked as an organizational psychologist for over a decade, and is most recently working on developing social media guidelines for a real estate company. He also teaches psychology at Xavier University. In his spare time he… wait, who are we kidding… he has no spare time. You can follow him on Twitter @MeaningToWork or his blog at Meaning to Work.


  1. These are some excellent insights — and I hope Eli is feeling better!

    • Thanks, he’s feeling much better these days, so it was all worth it.

      But I’ve realized in the weeks since this experience, that this lens of “Good isn’t good enough” really explains a lot of workplace behavior. I’m not sure what to do with that thought right now, but it is interesting!

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